Fea­tures: Har­ness­ing the heal­ing power of wild swim­ming

Plung­ing into the sea or a loch is en­er­gis­ing, heal­ing and fun, says Anna Dea­con who has co-writ­ten a book in­spired by her pas­sion for wild swim­ming

The Scotsman - - FRONT PAGE -

Swim­ming in the cold wa­ters around Scotland has al­ways been part of my fam­ily cul­ture. My great-grand­mother was a big fan of swim­ming and swam in the sea, where she lived in Shet­land, at any given op­por­tu­nity. She did it to ease the pain of her rheuma­tism, but also for the sheer joy of it. It’s only in re­cent years I’ve dis­cov­ered we may be find­ing a sim­i­lar re­lief there.

My favourite child­hood mem­o­ries nearly all in­volve wa­ter of some sort: gud­dling around the little river in Nethy Bridge look­ing for min­nows, squeal­ing in the cold wa­ter at Loch Insh, pic­nics around River Feshie, pad­dling with the ducks in Loch Mor­lich, shout­ing and hear­ing our voices echo­ing across to the ruined cas­tle on the is­land at Loch An Eilean.

I lived in Lon­don for 20 years, nav­i­gat­ing my way around the busy city, work­ing with rock bands and mu­sic fes­ti­vals, do­ing ex­tremely long hours. Whilst it was ridicu­lously fun and he­do­nis­tic, I al­ways han­kered after the cool, pine-scented peace of the Cairn­gorms. I used to wish to es­cape the grime, traf­fic and noise to walk the banks of the peaty lochs, lis­ten to the call­ing of the birds and the wind rustling the leaves of the sil­ver birch trees. When­ever I could es­cape, I would get the sleeper train up to my par­ents’ home in Kin­gussie and get my fix of na­ture and fam­ily for the week­end. I would step off the train after a fairly rub­bish sleep, in­hale the fresh mountain air, and feel an in­stant re­lief. It was a chance to stop and recharge.

I moved with my fam­ily – hus­band and two kids – to Ed­in­burgh three years ago for a new start away from Lon­don. I felt so drawn to the sea, and was de­lighted to dis­cover a quiet little bay, next to Gran­ton Har­bour near my new home. I was keen to swim there, but I never saw an­other swim­mer and guessed the wa­ter was prob­a­bly a bit grim too. I walked on the beach most days and felt my­self re­lax­ing as I watched the sky­line. I would sit on the beach after the school run and just watch the wa­ter, the sea birds and the oc­ca­sional seal.

My cousin who lives down in East Loth­ian took me off for a hike around the time we moved, and when she jumped in the sea at the end I thought she was a bit mad. But then all of a sud­den the mem­o­ries of swim­ming in freez­ing lochs as a child with my sis­ter came flood­ing back. Could I reignite this child­like joy in my­self as a nearly 40-year-old? We swam up and down to­gether at Gul­lane beach watch­ing the birds div­ing, and the sun set­ting on the golden wa­ter, and it was just mag­i­cal. I was hooked.

After that we swam reg­u­larly to­gether, when­ever I could es­cape down the coast. But by this time I wanted more, I wanted to be in the sea as much as I could. I joined a Por­to­bello swim­ming group and dis­cov­ered there were more peo­ple who wanted to swim at my lo­cal beach, Wardie Bay. So we met, a few at first, but grad­u­ally joined by more and more. A mot­ley crew, we had noth­ing in com­mon, but joined by our love of the wa­ter we bonded. We swim to­gether most Sun­day af­ter­noons, come rain or shine, snow or wind.

I walk down the tiny steps to the bay and my heart al­ways lifts to see the ar­ray of dry robes, tow­els and the oc­ca­sional bon­fire.

In Septem­ber last year, I had taken on too much work and I was jug­gling chil­dren and jobs, pets and school runs and it all got too much. I lost per­spec­tive and be­gan to feel pan­icky and anx­ious. Along­side that, my joints and sci­at­ica were at times so painful that walk­ing down to the beach was an ef­fort.

But like my great­grand­mother, I was find­ing re­lief in the wa­ter. Im­mers­ing my­self in the cold, salty wa­ter al­ways took my breath away, but also took my stress and pain away, and my walk home, al­though up­hill all the way, felt much eas­ier.

My cousin and I had a won­der­ful swim at Tyn­ing­hame one morn­ing – the Bass Rock was cov­ered in haar, the beach was de­serted and the air was com­pletely still and al­most muf­fled, like when it is about to snow. The waves though were bouncy and fun. It was a turn­ing point for me. After some bat­ter­ing from the waves I felt my stress be­gin to ebb away and the belly laughs be­gin and we played like chil­dren, ut­terly in thrall to the sea. I had brought my cam­era with me on the walk and felt so in­spired by every­thing around me, I started pho­tograph­ing the beach, and then Lil in the waves, and I re­alised I needed to get in the wa­ter to get the right an­gle of her won­der­fully joy­ous face. This was where the book be­gan as my two pas­sions com­bined. I took my cam­era to the beach for my next reg­u­lar swim and took some pho­tos of my swim group. I asked them to tell me a bit about why they swam and I was as­ton­ished at their sto­ries, it seemed ev­ery­one had a rea­son for com­ing to the wa­ter. I started an In­sta­gram ac­count as a place to put th­ese little sto­ries and por­traits, and started re­search­ing cold wa­ter swim­ming for heal­ing.

It was around this time that I met jour­nal­ist and au­thor

After some bat­ter­ing from the waves I felt my stress be­gin to ebb away and the belly laughs be­gin and we played like chil­dren, ut­terly in thrall to the sea

Vicky Al­lan, a fel­low wild swim­mer, and the book idea re­ally started to come to life. We sparked off each other’s en­ergy and started to re­search the topic in earnest, swim­ming and chat­ting as we went.

We spent the fol­low­ing year meet­ing the most amaz­ing peo­ple, swim­ming with them, in­ter­view­ing them, tak­ing their por­traits. We were moved to tears with sto­ries of pain, loss, de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, we were pushed be­yond our bound­aries ice swim­ming, climb­ing hills to hid­den heal­ing pools, and leap­ing into wa­ter­falls. We found peo­ple to be evan­ge­lis­tic in their love for out­door swim­ming, want­ing to share their sto­ries and en­cour­age oth­ers to join in, shar­ing how the wa­ter helped them in their own jour­neys to heal­ing. Our book is a col­lec­tion of th­ese sto­ries, a love story if you like about wild, out­door swim­ming and those glo­ri­ous souls who do it, along­side ex­pert ad­vice from sea­soned sea swim­mers, doctors, psy­chi­a­trists, and wa­ter safety ex­perts.

As with so many of the swim­mers we met, Vicky and I found our­selves be­ing wel­comed by an in­cred­i­bly in­clu­sive, non-judg­men­tal com­mu­nity of swim­mers and dip­pers, who watch out for one an­other, lend com­fort, share cakes and sto­ries around a cosy fire, hands wrapped around a warm drink, in­spir­ing one an­other with won­der­ful new lo­ca­tions to swim, join­ing to­gether for ad­ven­tures and dis­cussing huge life sto­ries in a safe place.

Re­search­ing the med­i­cal ev­i­dence on cold wa­ter swim­ming for de­pres­sion and pain re­lief was re­ally eye-open­ing too. Ac­cord­ing to Dr Mark Harper, who has led stud­ies into cold wa­ter im­mer­sion and its ef­fects on our bod­ies, “When you put your face in cold wa­ter, you get this mas­sive parasym­pa­thetic stim­u­la­tion and that re­duces in­flam­ma­tion, and that works through the va­gus nerve.”

My great-grand­mother was­right.it­does­lookasifa dip in cold wa­ter does work some magic with pain and in­flam­ma­tion. Her story, were she around, could eas­ily be one of the many in our book.

● Tak­ing The Plunge: The Heal­ing Power of Wild Swim­ming for Mind, Body & Soul by Anna Dea­con and Vicky Al­lan is out to­day through Black & White Pub­lish­ing, £20. The au­thors will be at Water­stones West End, Ed­in­burgh, on Thurs­day 14 Novem­ber, 6:30pm, tick­ets avail­able on­line and in store.

Clock­wise from main: wild swim­mers at Por­to­bello for the launch of Tak­ing The Plunge; Anna Dea­con by the sea as a child; with co-au­thor Vicky Al­lan, left, at the book’s launch; the idea for a book was born after Anna started tak­ing por­traits of fel­low swim­mers

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